A week ago, the NL Central was wide open. The top three teams were within 3.5 games of each other, and all three were in playoff position.
Seven days on, things have come into sharper focus. The Chicago Cubs have widened their lead over the Milwaukee Brewers by a smidge and have left the St. Louis Cardinals relatively in the dust as far as it concerns the division.
The three-way battle between the three teams, which carries implications for both the division and NL Wild Card standings, still promises to be one of the most entertaining in the league over the final two weeks of the season. Let's look a little closer at the three hopefuls.
Cubs wounded but rising
The Cubs increased their lead by a game over Milwaukee this week despite dropping two of three at home to their rivals in a big head-to-head series. The Brewers failed to capitalize and seem to be heading in the wrong direction.
The biggest news for the Cubs this week was the loss, not of a game, but of closer Pedro Strop. After the Cubs took a 10th-inning lead over the Washington Nationals in Thursday's makeup game at Nationals Park, manager Joe Maddon left Strop in to pitch the bottom of the inning and let him bat with the bases loaded. Strop hit a ground ball and pulled his hamstring trying to avoid being doubled off. Strop is now out for the rest of the regular season, and the Cubs will hope that they will get one of their most effective relievers back for the playoffs.
While they have not mathematically clinched, the Cubs will need to choke in a serious, 1964 Phillies, 2007 Mets fashion to miss the playoffs entirely, but the new Wild Card Game is such a crapshoot that securing the division is a must. It's also worth noting that the Cubs lead the Atlanta Braves by five games for the best record in the National League, so if they can maintain that lead the road to the World Series will run through Wrigley Field.
Brewers can't capitalize
The Brewers had a golden chance to narrow the Cubs' lead on first place last season after they took two of three in the final head-to-head meeting between the two clubs. But they failed to take it over the weekend, dropping two of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates while the Cubs took a closely fought series with the Cincinnati Reds and took the game they had in hand against the Nats. That widened the Chicago lead, and while the Brewers could still catch them, they'll need a bunch of outside help with no more head-to-head confrontations.
They do get to play the Cardinals before the end of the year and could put first place in the wild card race to bed if they take that series. They lead the Redbirds by three games for the right to host the game, but with the NL West race also factoring into the NL Wild Card, the Brewers can't get complacent just yet. If they were to slump at the wrong time, it is still very much possible for them to drop out of the top two spots entirely, although if they get through the Cardinals next week they see the season out with a relatively easy series against Detroit.
Crushing run-in for Cards
Of the three contenders, the Cardinals have by far the most to lose—and the hardest road to get to the tournament.
The Cards get head-to-heads with not only the Brewers but the Cubs as well. They end the season with three at Wrigley and could be fighting for their playoff lives when they get there. They're only half a game up on the Rockies for the final playoff spot. The Rockies themselves are only half a game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, so either of those teams could take the last spot from St. Louis by the end of the year.
The Cubs could have the division and home-field advantage sewn up by that point, so the Cards may close the season against a team that will be looking to set its rotation and avoid injuries rather than one that needs to beat them. Still, it's a tough run-in, which makes Adam Wainwright's fantastic nine-strikeout start on Sunday a welcome sight. If Wainwright can make a contribution over the last two weeks, it will go a heck of a long way toward cementing their playoff status.